April 23, 2021

Predictions: The Rock Hall Class of 2021

It never gets any easier. February brought 16 stellar Rock Hall nominees to the table, and close followers of the institution hope the voters check the right boxes. Picking a mere five artists from this ballot is just brutal.

So who gets in? One thing that must be taken into account is the Fan Vote, and whether or not the winner makes the final cut. To date, the Fan Vote winners are 7 for 8: Rush, KISS, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Chicago, Journey, Bon Jovi, and Def Leppard all earned induction, while last year's victor, Dave Matthews Band, got shut out. The current Fan Vote leader is Tina Turner, though Fela Kuti's engaged fan base has kept him at or near the top throughout the process.

Recent induction history can also provide additional clarity, in terms of the number of actual artists that get in. It's perplexing that the Hall has voters pick just five artists, because quite often, more than five get inducted. Recent induction numbers bear that out: 2020's class had six performers and two Ahmet Erteguns. In 2019, there were seven performers. 2017 saw six performers, plus Nile Rodgers getting the Musical Excellence Award. In 2015, they "super-sized" it all, with seven performers and an Early Influence honoree in the "5" Royales. (This made for a painfully long ceremony, admittedly, and the gala might still be going on... there's no way of knowing if Elvin Bishop is done talking or not.)

With the current ballot, it's impossible to vote for five acts and not make a painful omission. Here's a telling example of that: On April 16, Rock Hall VP of Education and Visitor Engagement Jason Hanley shared on Twitter that he picked Devo over Carole King. To quote Jason's tweet exactly, "Hard decision, so many amazing artists." This must be a widely shared sentiment among the votership. 

Given this remarkable ballot  along with the fact that there was no actual ceremony last year  it's reasonable to expect that the Rock Hall will throw a huge, inductee-heavy party at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse this October 30. The prognostication here is a seven-performer class and a Musical Excellence recipient.

The Predictions:

Tina Turner - Quite simply, Tina is overdue, and this honor is richly deserved. Turner is a shining example of having a second act in American life. Her recent documentary on HBO makes it even more pressing and evident that she merits her second induction, independent of her abuser. She's probably winning the Fan Vote, as well.

Carole King One just pictures every Rock Hall voter going, "What? She's not in yet?" and checking that box. The 1971 album Tapestry alone makes King worthy of being in as a performer, in addition to her previous Non-Performer induction with her songwriting partner Gerry Goffin. 

LL Cool J - Everyone is so convinced Jay-Z is the rapper getting in this year... maybe rethink that. It seems cruel they'd put LL Cool J on the ballot for a sixth time and snub him again. Sure, it could happen, but with this ballot, it seems the Hall is trying to right some wrongs and improve optics across the board. In 2017, the illustrious Kennedy Center made LL its first hip-hop honoree; the Rock Hall is truly behind the curve with this guy. Inducting this rap superstar would be the right call, and Rock Hall board member Lyor Cohen's recent open letter in Billboard urging LL's induction might finally put James Todd Smith over the top. (Further, Jay-Z doesn't seem to care, is last in the Fan Vote, and next year's induction is in Brooklyn, Jay's hometown... you do the math. And yes, Eminem is eligible next year, but as Cohen insightfully notes in his piece, rap is the top musical form on the planet, as well as "the new rock & roll," so it's possible they could both see induction in 2022.)

The Go-Go's - Hey Belinda Carlisle, time to book a flight from your home in Thailand to join your bandmates Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey, Gina Schock, and Kathy Valentine in Cleveland. Belinda, whose onetime punk moniker was Dottie Danger, is on track to be honored on the same night as Pat Smear, yet another former member of the Germs, which brings us to...

Foo Fighters - In 1995, on the Foo Fighters' second single, Dave Grohl assured everyone, "I'll Stick Around," and that, ladies and gentlemen, he has. To borrow a line from the Go-Go's, when it comes to the Foos, it doesn't matter what they say  the ceremony requires a headliner, and they fit the bill. Further, the Hall has been dropping unsubtle hints (playing Foo Fighters music during press events, etc.), so this may be since the most predictable induction since Pearl Jam. And finally, it must be asked: What is left for David Eric Grohl now? One might go to the famous, often misattributed quote about Alexander the Great that Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber makes in "Die Hard" (with a key substitution): "And when David saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.

Iron Maiden - The Rock Hall is hopefully wise enough to not enrage metal fans any further, as they've nominated ostensible shoo-ins Judas Priest twice (in 2018 and 2020) and failed to put them in. Imagine them dissing Iron Maiden this year and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown-level hellfire that would ensue. Additionally, various voters displaying their ballots on social media suggest that the box for Iron Maiden is frequently getting checked. Anticipate a Radiohead-like reception from the band upon their induction news, as certain members have been quite dismissive of the Hall in the past. One could easily envision founder/bassist Steve Harris and guitarist Adrian Smith showing up, and no one else, while a band like Mastodon or Baroness is subbed in to play "Run to the Hills" or something. But here's hoping that a change of heart and a good managerial pep talk to the boys is afoot, and Bruce Dickinson flies Ed Force One into Cleveland Hopkins International Airport this October. Their ghoulish mascot Eddie striding across the induction stage would be a most spectacular and welcome sight. Run for your life!  

Devo - It's an important duty to honor eccentrics and outsiders with a clearly defined, resonating worldview and aesthetic (see: the Ramones). Fitting this bill in 2021 is twitchy New Wave/synth-pop act Devo, whose prescient, foundational concept of de-evolution has, sadly, proven timeless. The energy dome hat-wearing Ohio spudboys and their fans would find it ideal to have this induction occur in Cleveland. Presumably, Devo has former MTV executive and new Rock Hall chairman John Sykes in their corner. Sykes co-founded MTV, where these Akronites broke out visually and inspired an audience of fellow misfits to create their own subversive music, including They Might Be Giants, Oingo Boingo, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Nirvana (a John Peel session found them covering "Turn Around"), Soundgarden (who covered "Girl U Want"), and even fellow 2021 nominees Rage Against the Machine, who did "Beautiful World" on their album Renegades. Devo has been eligible for 18 years, this is their second nomination, and it just feels like it may be their time. 

Musical Excellence: Fela Kuti - This Nigerian Afrobeat legend's impact is felt far beyond the borders of Nigeria, and his passionate fan base has kept him at or near the top of the Fan Vote. The call here is that the Hall finds a way to get him in (global attention for the Rock Hall could only be a net positive), and Musical Excellence is likely the path the institution takes. Fela's impact can be heard in artists from Bootsy Collins to Talking Heads to Nigerian-British pop star Burna Boy. The tribute performance potential for Fela is tantalizing, and hopefully could involve his musician sons Femi and Seun.

January 15, 2021

20 Suggestions for the Next Rock Hall Ballot

As Bob Dylan once sang, "... things have changed." The Rock Hall Nominating Committee meets later this month to generate a ballot for the Class of 2021, but it does so against the backdrop of a very different world. 

The entire nomination/induction schedule has shifted, and an attempt will be made at a live Cleveland ceremony this October 30. Still, there are so many variables, from feasibility to content. Will Jann Wenner's stepping down from the Rock Hall Foundation board (and iHeartMedia's John Sykes stepping up) affect this annual ritual? Will the social justice movements of the past year be reflected in the pool of nominees, or will it be business as usual? Clarity around all these things will arrive in February, when the nominee slate is released, to guaranteed cheers and jeers.  

Until then, it's time to break away from the usual predictions. It's an endeavor many already engage in, and there are plenty of prognostications circulating already. Consensus is forming around Dave Grohl's band as well as the artist formerly known as Shawn Carter. Why belabor the point?

Things have changed here, too. Making suggestions felt more appropriate than doing predictions, so below is a curated list of 20 artists worthy of Rock Hall consideration. Official ballots in recent years have had 15 to 19 names, so 20 options seemed viable. Any 15, 16, or 19 of these would comprise an outstanding field. 

If only it were that easy. The names below are cast into the Rock Hall conversation amid a nomination/induction process that is broken, backlogged and maybe too far gone to ever fix. As Future Rock Legends recently noted on Twitter in response to Joe Hardtke's excellent list of 155 deserving Hall candidates, acts basically have to "hit the lottery to get in." If those are the odds, why not expand the horizons of who has a shot?

And hey, no list, ballot or prediction can be comprehensive, nor does an exercise like this please everyone. The repeated criticisms of the Hall around gender, race, and genre are justified, valid and well-trodden. No submitted field of artists, official or otherwise, can cover it all, unless it was like, 200+ artists long. Nick Bambach is currently working through his stellar series of 100 Rock Hall prospects, and that is certainly required reading.

So please sit back, read, and breathe easy in the knowledge that you are not alone in believing that such legends as Big Mama Thornton, Link Wray, Kraftwerk, Tina Turner, Carole King, the Meters, Judas Priest, Kool & the Gang, the Spinners, Pat Benatar, and the Go-Go's deserve to be in – truths that at this point are self-evident. They've all received previous advocacy in this space, and just don't happen to appear on the list below. (On a related note, please check out the "21 for 21 Project" by Mary from Hall Watchers and Iconic Rock Talk Show's Michelle Bourg — a series of institution-rattling arguments for 21 female acts that need to be inducted.)

20 suggestions for the Rock Hall's next ballot, in no particular order:

PJ Harvey
Darkness, jagged blues and desire all churn about in the tempest that is Polly Jean Harvey. Her music turned heads upon her arrival in 1992 with her album Dry, and what a stunning, uncompromising body of work this Somerset, England native has crafted in the years since. It's strange to say that a repertoire of assaultive, haunting compositions has lost nothing with time, and it's almost counterintuitive to say that it's a pleasure to listen to (Ron Swanson's quote "like a banshee on the moors" springs to mind), but there it is. Patti Smith, Dylan, Cohen and Beefheart were among her muses, and they served her well. From 1995's hypnotic knockout To Bring You My Love (listen to the closing track "The Dancer" again, and be devastated anew) to 2004's lauded Uh Huh Her to the Mercury Prize-winning, World War I-themed Let England Shake, Harvey's raging gifts and ambition have set a daunting bar for performers and singer-songwriters everywhere. Her near-universal critical acclaim places her in a lofty echelon, but it's warranted; for Harvey, pure artistic intent has proven to be a shield against backlash. Kurt Cobain loved her music, and the surviving members of Nirvana actually reached out to Harvey to participate in the band's induction performance (sadly she was unavailable, but that would have been amazing). Harvey's aftershocks can be felt in the work of artists such as Sleater-Kinney, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Torres. 

It's time for Selena Quintanilla to enter the Rock Hall discussion. She may have been tragically taken away at age of 23, but this Mexican-American Tejano icon's voice, style and staggering chart success makes her an exceptional candidate for Cleveland. Selena's 1992 breakthrough album, Entre a Mi Mundo went to number one on the U.S. Billboard Regional Mexican Albums chart and kept its perch there for nearly five months. That record's follow-up, Amor Prohibido, yielded four Number One Latin singles, among them the title track and “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.” A major concert attraction, Selena performed three years in a row at the Houston Astrodome, where over 60,000 screaming fans showed up to see their beloved hero. Dreaming of You, her posthumous LP, was released in July 1995 and featured the major hits "I Could Fall In Love" and "Dreaming Of You." Further, her 1990 album Ven Conmigo was archived by the National Recording Registry in 2020. And if you think about it, last year's Super Bowl halftime show with Shakira and J. Lo. may not have happened without Selena helping to light the path. Her massive influence is clear to see (Katy Perry, Marc Anthony, Solange), and the recent "Selena: The Series," which recently arrived on Netflix, has raised the late Quintanilla's profile even higher. It was also just announced that Selena is being given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award this year. 

Ronnie James Dio
"Between the velvet lies/There's a truth that's hard as steel..." In order to encapsulate and fully honor the unparalleled music career of the late Ronald James Padavona, it may be judicious on the Hall's part to just put this howling icon in on his own. It was totally unjust that he was left out of Black Sabbath's 2006 induction (he took over for a fired Ozzy Osbourne in 1979, resulting in Sabbath's classic Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules LPs, both to be reissued March 5). This man popularized the sign of the horns in metal, and his credits speak for themselves. There's Sabbath, which should have been enough to earn him induction, but there's also Rainbow (a case could be made for this group too), the late-'60s group Elf, and his namesake band Dio (again, a case could be made). Ronnie's soaring voice is heard on a treasure trove of songs, including "Man on the Silver Mountain" (Rainbow), "Neon Nights" (Sabbath), and the Dio favorites "Rainbow in the Dark," "Holy Diver," and "Straight Through the Heart" (check out Halestorm's kick-ass cover of this one on the 2014 RJD tribute album This is Your Life). Metal as we know it is unthinkable without Dio's contributions, and the roll call of reverent peers (Judas Priest's Rob Halford, the Scorpions) and zealots (Metallica, Anthrax, Slipknot's Corey Taylor, Lizzy Hale) is extensive. Jack Black and Kyle Gass of Tenacious D, also proud Dio disciples, would jump at the chance to do the induction speech for their hero Ronnie. 

The Marvelettes
Formed in Inkster, Michigan in 1960, the Marvelettes can lay claim to Motown's first Number One single, 1961's "Please Mr. Postman." The Supremes were their competitors, yet Smokey Robinson was a crucial mentor, assisting with production and songwriting. Others involved with their musical output include Berry Gordy, Holland-Dozier-Holland, and Marvin Gaye. "The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game" and "Don't Mess With Bill" are among their other notable singles. The Marvelettes have two previous Rock Hall nominations (in 2013 and 2015), but have yet to be inducted. Nonetheless, they've been honored by the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and the Official Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame. Any induction this delayed means some members of the group are sadly no longer around to enjoy  it. Last September, Georgia Dobbins Davis, co-writers of "Postman" and a founding member of the group, passed away at 78. Gladys Horton, her bandmate, left us in 2011,  and Georgeanna Tillman died in 1980. Still, the Marvelettes are owed recognition for their achievements at Motown.

"6 in the morning, police at my door/Fresh Adidas squeak across the bathroom floor/Out my back window I make a escape/Don't even get a chance to grab my old school tape..." Long before Snoop deployed "6 in the mornin'" as a lifestyle-revealing time stamp (as in, the ladies weren't leaving his place until then), the law was at Ice-T's door at that hour. Arguably the father of gangsta rap, Ice-T deserves a place in the Hall alongside inductees N.W.A., an act he set the table for. Of course, the provocative thrash metal side project Body Count (nominated for a Best Metal Performance Grammy this year) is inextricably linked to the Ice-T legacy due to the 1992 "Cop Killer" song controversy. (The famous Rolling Stone cover of Ice-T dressed as a police officer has been on display at the Rock Hall more than once...very interesting). Lightning rod, TV actor, reality star... that fresh Adidas shoe fits. But above all else, Tracy Marrow, introduced to the world with the single "The Coldest Rap" in 1983, is an iconic and genre-defining figure.

"Come sit next to me/Pour yourself some tea," requests Rivers Cuomo on the career rocket launch that "My Name is Jonas," and an entire generation listened. Explosive in that tick-tick-boom/quiet-then-loud '90s way, it was the era's best album opener since Cobain felt stupid and contagious. Weezer's music, for all its peaks and valleys, is the result of three decades of chasing a winning formula. Rivers Cuomo, guitarist Brian Bell, drummer Patrick Wilson, and bassist Matt Sharp (later, bassists Mikey Welsh (RIP) and Scott Shriner) created an arena-shaking leviathan that commands respectA synthesis of power pop hooks, Gen X dread, Beach Boys harmonies and heavy riffs have made Weezer alt-rock legends with a diehard following. They walked so bands like Nada Surf, Jimmy Eat World and Fall Out Boy could run, just as there would be no Weezer without Cuomo talismans Kurt Cobain, Eddie Van Halen, or Ace Frehley. And what a songbook this quartet has: "Buddy Holly" was pure joy with its Spike Jonze-directed, "Happy Days"-referencing video; the detonative "Say It Ain't So," their creative zenith, confronts parental alcoholism's impact on children ("...the son is drowning in the flood"); Pinkerton's  "The Good Life" has one the greatest rock choruses ever (also, the lyrics "...everything I want/Is taken away from me... It's time I got back to the good lifefeel even more relevant in this pandemic era); and 2016's White Album embraced Southern California fun on tracks like "Do You Wanna Get High?" and "Thank God for Girls." In 2018, their cover of Toto's "Africa" became their first Billboard Number One single in a decade. Sober yet whimsical, metallic one moment and easy-breezy the next, Weezer contains multitudes. And 27 years after their debut, they're still going. A surprise new album, OK Human, drops January 29, and May 7, they'll drop their 15th LP Van Weezer, its title a play on Van Halen. Ridiculous, but these guys can get away with it, because their place in the American rock pantheon is cemented already. That hasn't been lost on the Hall: Bassist Shriner played with the Cars for their 2018 induction, and the Rock Hall reportedly had Weezer set up to be the house band for the abandoned live 2020 ceremony. A nomination can't be too far off. To borrow a line from Pinkerton's "Getchoo," this is beginning to be serious.

Patsy Cline
One of the greatest country singers ever, Virginia Patterson Hensley left us far too young at age 30 in a 1963 plane crash. Her country and pop crossover legacy, however, is a rich one.  Cline recorded a pile of singles in the later half of the '50s, with "Walkin' After Midnight" emerging as a standout. When the '60s rolled around, and she was free from her earlier contractual shackles, she released the monumental hits "I Fall to Pieces" and "Crazy" (written by Willie Nelson). Indisputably, Cline built the stage on which so many female singers, regardless of genre, stand today. She was the first female solo artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, all the way back in 1973. Thus, recognition from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should be forthcoming, given her pop chart success and iconic status. Musical excellence? Obviously. Influence? Everyone from Loretta Lynn to Dolly Parton to Linda Ronstadt (inducted) to k.d. lang. The Hall is certainly not averse to honoring country-associated artists (i.e., Hank Williams, Johnny Cash), so Cline just feels like an inevitable selection. She's been eligible since 1982, but has never been nominated. In a world where genres increasingly blend together and myriad digital music platforms find us all consuming a wide variety of sounds, overlooking an artist of Cline's magnitude due to her perceived primary genre is short-sighted. She transcends country, and is worthy of a nomination.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, N.W.A., Tupac and Biggie are all inducted, but there's something missing, isn't there? Queens from Queens and among the most successful female hip-hop acts, Salt-N-Pepa and DJ Spinderella would be breaking the Rock Hall's glass ceiling. By any metric, they're deserving, with major, your-mom-even-likes-these-guys hits like "Push It," "Let's Talk About Sex," "Shoop," and "Whatta Man" (featuring En Vogue). This trio blazed a trail for assertive women in hip-hop, and TLC and Missy Elliott definitely took key inspiration from themSalt-N-Pepa's 1993 album Very Necessary is the highest-selling album by a female rap group in history — a Hall of Fame qualifier, no?

Joy Division 
Dark wave post-punk legends that set a sonic and atmospheric template for a legion of artists that came after them, including Depeche Mode, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, and Interpol. (For one clear-cut example of Joy Division's influence, listen to "Atmosphere" and the Cure's "Plainsong" back to back; the shimmering sonics are like a continuation of a DNA strand.) The group shattered upon singer Ian Curtis' death in 1980, then morphed into electronic-pop masters New Order. In the spirit of having an evolved opinion on this, a Joy Division nom, without New Order being included (remember the Small Faces/Faces induction?) is perhaps the right decision. The band is singular enough to stand on its own, and its music is all about being painfully alone, anyway. In honoring Curtis and his surviving bandmates that soldiered on to form that second group, the Hall would at least be in the neighborhood of recognizing New Order, too. Henry Rollins, in a 2019 L.A. Times piece, elegantly summed up Joy Division's music: "The songs are readings of temperature, light and lack of light. They walk silently for hours on city streets and return alone to small rooms with full ashtrays and no messages on the machine."

"People livin' in competition/All I want is to have my peace of mind." Now there's a statement anyone allergic to the rat race can get behind. Boston has sold a staggering 75 million records, with their 1976 self-titled debut moving 17 million units. Tom Scholz, a guitar, songwriting and producing mastermind, created dynamic tunes that, when paired with the warm, surging vocals of Brad Delp, dominated the FM airwaves for 46 years (and counting). "More Than a Feeling," "Rock and Roll Band" and "Smokin'" might be the soundtrack to drinking warm beers in the woods on a high school Saturday night, but few would argue that those moments aren't among the best of their lives. Despite all the "too slick, too corporate" criticisms that have been lobbed at these guys, there is something undeniable: For a wide swath of a generation, hearing Boston (and previous inductees Journey, Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, and Steve Miller) transports them back to their formative years, and reminds them of simpler times. It's a kind of magic, and there's something to be said for that. 

Mariah Carey
As the insistent sound of "All I Want For Christmas Is You" fades from our psyche post-holidays, a thought still lingers: Mariah Carey is an all-timer with a worldwide impact that may rival that of Santa Claus. With her five-octave range and an endless stream of hits, this superstar owned the '90s pop/R&B music scene, and has helped define popular music in the decades since like no other. She's had a competition-humbling 19 Number One singles on the Billboard Hot 100 (more than any solo artist) and has sold over 200 million records globally. Charts and sales are one thing, but other aspects of this singer's narrative — her longevity and resilience — might be even more important. Those qualities are well-chronicled in her recent biography "The Meaning of Mariah Carey," which recounts her early success and marriage to Columbia Records' Tommy Mottola, the Glitter era, her 2005 comeback The Emancipation of Mimi, and beyond. Still relevant and ubiquitous up to the present day, it's clear that Carey is a survivor, not to mention a triumphant example of what a pop icon can and should be. Her influence on singers that followed, from Christina to Britney to Ariana, is plain to hear. This record-breaker will make it to Cleveland; the only question is when. 

Jaco Pastorius
The Rock Hall, in a perfect world, should be honoring white-hot geniuses that redefined their instrument. The self-taught Jaco Pastorius is one of those talents. The late "Hendrix of bass" is commonly associated with jazz, but despite his stints with Weather Report, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock and others, some have argued that he wasn't really jazz at all. That makes him, what, rock? Fusion? Progressive jazz? Genre-transcendent? The truth is in there somewhere, but what cannot be taken away is Pastorius' pure gift, so spectacularly demonstrated on the fretless bass. With his fleet fingers, trombone-like tone and a tendency to outshine just about everyone else onstage (a habit Weather Report's Joe Zawinul legendarily detested), Jaco took bass sound and technique to a stratosphere not seen since. Bass players heard his playing and went home to first, have a good cry, and then completely reboot their approach to playing. Joni Mitchell called upon Jaco's electrifying talents (for the studio record Hejira as well as the live album Shadows and Light), while his debut, simply titled Jaco Pastorius, is an audacious landmark of electric bass. His influence is vast — pretty much any bassist that came after him — but players that have sung Jaco's praises include Bootsy Collins, Geddy Lee, Sting, Flea, Stanley Clarke, Christian McBride, and Metallica's Robert Trujillo, who was a producer on the terrific 2015 documentary Jaco. Substance abuse and mental health issues coalesced tragically in Florida one night in 1987, when Pastorius had a run-in with a bouncer, leading to his death at age 35. In the end, this bass legend's legacy is towering, and players across genres have expressed a reverence for him afforded to few. American music giant Miles Davis, a 2006 inductee whose jazz work also impacted rock, once wrote a tribute song to him titled "Mr. Pastorius." All things considered, a Jaco nomination (or Musical Excellence nod) would be a sophisticated, insightful move on the Hall's part.

Sonic Youth
New York City's masters of guitar noise and left-field alt-rock hits ("Kool Thing," "Incinerate") exuded a detached, cosmopolitan cool, yet were wholly committed to their punk-inspired craft. They disbanded in 2011 due to the marital breakup of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, but their rulebook-tossing contributions to 20th and 21st century music still reverberate. The experimentally-minded troupe was catnip for the often snobby rock intelligentsia, but the band's appearance on "The Simpsons" demonstrated that the group was capable of shaking off their hipster gravitas at times. Gordon delivered an unforgettable version of Nirvana's "Aneurysm" during the 2014 induction ceremony, which can only help Sonic Youth's chances. Acts from Dinosaur Jr. to Slowdive to Helium can claim them as an influence, as can hundreds of other bands. 

It's a steep challenge to adequately summarize Phish, but here goes: Improvisational rock legends from Vermont that forever changed music festival culture. The quartet has been at it intermittently since 1988, evolving across 1,700+ shows, curated festivals, and multi-night Halloween and New Year's runs. Their roving fan base is massive, loyal/critical, and currently trapped in a concert-less purgatory. So maybe this is the perfect time to pause and reflect on how exceptional their favorite band is. Humble, collegiate beginnings led to persuasive, high-energy shows at clubs, theaters, and arenas across America, a deal with Elektra, and "the cover of the Rolling Stone." There have been hiatuses, a breakup, and a cautionary drug tale that ended positively. But in the end, Phish's story is told in the live setting. Trey Anastasio, Jon Fishman, Mike Gordon and Page McConnell's achievements onstage defy quantification, but the 2017 "Baker's Dozen" residency at Madison Square Garden stands out. They did 13 shows, never repeated a song, and churned out some of the finest renditions of songs like "Lawn Boy," "It's Ice" and "A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing." Make no mistake: These guys will win you over. Naysayers that once scoffed at Phish or "never got it" get dragged to a show, and their viewpoint changes 180 degrees (an instant evaporation of the poisonous "groupthink" that late fan/comedian Harris Wittels once bemoaned). The jolt one feels when Anastasio rips into the heavy riff of "Carini" can convert even the most skeptical. In the painful absence of live gigs, one can only imagine the deafening rapture that will greet Phish when they finally take the stage again in front of an audience (2022?). Suffice to say, this quartet has earned its (presumably inevitable) induction into the Rock Hall. 

Sinead O'Connor 
Arriving as passionate as she was serious, Irish wailer Sinead O'Connor rejected and revolutionized the music industry's notions of what a female pop star should look like, act like, or behave like. She entered the global frame in 1987 with her head-turning debut album, The Lion and the Cobra, which contained the college rock/pre-"alternative"-era hits "Mandinka" and "(I Want Your) Hands on Me." In one early career highlight, she performed "Mandinka" on the 1989 Grammys in a startling breakthrough performance. Of course, the zenith of O'Connor's career is I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got's "Nothing Compares 2 U," a timeless global hit penned by Prince and propagated by a bracingly intimate music video. Her discography continued in the decades to come with mixed success, though she received warm critical notices for 2014's I'm Not Bossy, I'm the Boss and especially 2012's How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?  Of course, the elephant in the room is that O'Connor is a polarizing figure; she's stepped into the ring with everyone from Catholics to Miley Cyrus. But what has to be acknowledged is her knockout voice and warrior's resolve, as well as her influence on so many artists that followed her lead (see: any female "alternative" star of the '90s and beyond, and more than a few acts on the Lilith Fair roster). In spite of all the tabloid press and social media dust-ups that have tarnished her public perception over the years, O'Connor seems to have recently arrived at a state of grace and clarity, with a critically hailed early-2020 performances. A continuation of her career, that she keeps sharing her gift, is something to hope for.

Captain Beefheart 
Where's the Beefheart? The late, bonkers experimentalist Don Van Vliet has been eligible nearly 30 years, but so far no Rock Hall love for his transgressive yet influential art-rock. A friend and collaborator of Frank Zappa (see: Bongo Fury), Captain Beefheart is a rare bird, and one that fellow outsiders Tom Waits and PJ Harvey have modeled their musical approach after. The admiration has stretched into the 21st century, as Third Man Records, Jack White's label, recently reissued the Beefheart masterpiece Trout Mask Replica. Besides White and certainly Beck Hansen, left-field outfits from Devo to Mr. Bungle to Morphine to Tune-Yards owe a debt to the Captain. His is a daunting, zigzagging catalog of variable accessibility, a demented blues/free-jazz racket that fascinates and clears rooms in equal measure. However, it bears noting that the lyrics "I'm playin' this music/ So the young girls will come out/To meet the monster tonight," from "Tropical Hot Dog Night," are among the most honest a musician could write. 

Six Grammys, obvious influence, 25 million records sold... what more does Outkast have to do for a Rock Hall nomination? What will it take to make the ceremony a "Player's Ball?" Besides hits and commercial success, AndrĂ© "3000" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton have always had the critics on their side. In fact, three of their albums  Aquemini, Stankonia, and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below just made Rolling Stone's recent 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The most visible representatives of the Dirty South, this Atlanta duo's chemistry and lethal rap flow yielded music that was wildly progressive, kinetic, and full of funk and soul. That they evolved so impressively and attained such great commercial heights makes them one of hip-hop's most indisputable success stories. In their words, "... the coolest motherfunkers on the planet." The Rock Hall's flawed, logjammed induction system is epitomized by its failure to even nominate an act like Outkast; this is the caliber of of artist that shouldn't sit on the shelf for two nomination cycles, as they have. 

Iron Maiden 
With Judas Priest balloted twice to no avail, the NomCom could point its devil horns toward Iron Maiden, an act that, until 2020 at least, reliably filled stadiums and arenas around the world. Road warriors Maiden, once scary and parent-repelling with their ghoulish mascot Eddie and sharp-pointed logo, enjoy a massively-embraced, bring-your-kids status that recently got them tagged as "the Grateful Dead of heavy metal." Now a multi-generational rite of passage, these high-octane trailblazers of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal go all the way back to 1975. They've seen lineup changes (most significantly from original singer Paul Di'Anno to Bruce Dickinson in 1981), but have never compromised their galloping, operatic sound, one of the most distinctive and galvanizing in their genre. Led by bassist Steve Harris, these London chaps have always aimed for the sky creatively — Maiden's music has dealt with topics including the literature of Gaston Leroux, Icarus, war, tyranny, and madness. Primary songwriter Harris and his co-conspirators Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, Nicko McBrain, Janick Gers and Bruce Dickinson should all be included in any induction. However, the Hall must also remember late drummer Clive Burr (featured on Maiden's first three records, a three-shot opening salvo of lechery, murder and flat-out evil that alone would qualify them for the Hall) as well as Di'Anno, whose punky, menacing vocals enlivened the self-titled debut and Killers. Maiden has a remarkable history, distinguished by decades of LPs, tours, live albums, and the facts that Dickinson survived cancer and pilots the band's plane, "Ed Force One," from gig to gig. Name another metal frontman that does that. "Fly as high as the sun!"

This past September 16, Bruce Springsteen played Beck's ethereal song "Morning" on his "From My Home to Yours" DJ show on SiriusXM. That's one titanic songwriter tipping his hat to another, and provides more evidence that Beck Hansen's ascension into rarefied air is now complete. (For context, Bruce played John Prine right after Beck.) But even without acknowledgment from the Boss, this Generation X hero's stunning,  shape-shifting career trajectory is Hall of Fame-worthy. Since his 1993 debut Golden Feelings, Beck has been a tireless practitioner of Dust Brothers-produced sound collages, Prince-like sex funk (Caligula would have blushed), full-on pop excursions (2017's Colors) and, at key stops along the way, deep-cutting singer-songwriter fare full of midnight confessions. It's this successful toggling between the profane and sacred that sets him apart as a once-in-a-generation artist. Nomination Committee member Amanda Petrusich, who wrote a magnificent New Yorker profile on Hansen last year, could be his potential champion in the room. 

The Shangri-Las 
Producer and songwriter George "Shadow" Morton orchestrated the Shangri-Las' widescreen teenage dramas, but these young ladies imbued the music with a passion and empathy that rocked a generation. Most notable was the death-courting "Leader of the Pack" (honored in the Singles category by the Hall in 2019) as well as the heartbreaking, seagull-accented "Remember (Walkin' in the Sand)." The Shangri-Las, in contrast to the more prim and proper girl groups of the era, cultivated a "bad girl" image, complete with boots and leather pants. And the raw feelings heard on both "Leader" and "Remember" potently epitomize the teenage mindset — everything is magnified. The layered music responds in kind, featuring spoken dialogue, hand claps, and finger snaps alongside such sound effects as motorcycles revving, and glass shattering like hearts. Mary Weiss' plaintive lead vocals anchor both of these tracks, as well as other remarkable Shangri-Las songs like "Give Him a Great Big Kiss," "I Can Never Go Home Anymore" (a track especially influential to Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon) and "Out in the Streets." This group (Weiss, her sister Elizabeth ("Betty") and twins Mary Ann and Marge Ganser) paved the way for punk rock and subsequent pop acts alike. Those that have covered and/or sung their praises include Blondie, the Go-Go's, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Amy Winehouse. The Shangri-Las are Singles honorees that richly deserve a Performer induction.

December 8, 2020

My First 10 Albums

There's the influence of others, and then there are the choices you make yourself. 

As a young kid, I'd duck into my older brother's bedroom and play various titles from his vinyl collection. It wasn't unlike little William Miller being handed a stack of records by his older sister Anita in "Almost Famous" — especially when I recall playing The Who's Tommy and, like, William, hearing the instrumental "Sparks." I was both DJ and a rapt audience of one as I repeatedly spun Jimi Hendrix's Smash Hits, the Beatles' "Red" and "Blue" compilations, Aqualung, every KISS album up to Dynasty, Physical Graffiti, Quadrophenia, Aerosmith's debut... you get the picture. 

I listened intently, while obsessively flipping through and reading the tall stack of Rolling Stone issues Jeff also had in his room. In total, it was a cascade of sound, imagery and words completely exotic and reflective of a sophistication and lifestyles light years away. As I gazed out the window and saw cows grazing in a pasture across the street, that distance could not have felt more pronounced.

However, that relatable "older sibling" influence on musical taste, as weighty and enduring as it is, isn't the focus of what I've been asked to share in this space. What follows is a recollection of the decisions I made when it came time to buy my own music. My world expanded, I conspired with friends at school regarding these matters, and, importantly, my media diet began to include MTV, so its influence looms large, as it does with any Gen Xer.

As requested by Wisconsin Public Radio Technical Producer Joe Hardtke (@PublicRadioPunk on Twitter), here are my first 10 albums, effectively the first LP purchases I made (or persuaded family members to buy me) in my youth. 

At Joe's direction, this list is unfiltered, dispensing any notions of being cool (not that there was any real risk of that). Fun fact: It was the Reagan era, so all but one of these were bought on cassette.

John Lennon - Imagine
It's kind of remarkable I'm writing this on the 40th anniversary of Lennon's assassination. That event had a huge impact on me as a child, and I think that's why I convinced a relative to buy this LP for me, the only vinyl album in this group. My aunt and uncle would often take me off my mom's hands for a few days, and there was a record store in the college town of Alfred, NY where I pulled Imagine out of the rack and asked my uncle Bill if he would buy this for me. Ever generous, he did. A complex album for a kid my age, and I'm not sure I properly appreciated it in the ways I would later. But it was a start. "Imagine there's no heaven...no religion too" are lyrics that ran so counter to what was being fed to me in other areas of my life, that it possibly seeded my later, deep suspicion of authority and organized belief systems. But the humanism, mature themes ("Jealous Guy") and raised-fist demands ("Gimme Some Truth")... well, all of that unquestionably pushed the tectonic plates of my impressionable mind around.

Krokus - The Blitz
Congratulations, this is the first time you'll ever see Krokus mentioned directly after John Lennon. It won't happen again; this is the Hale-Bopp comet of these things. And sorry for the whiplash. Brian, a rather strident friend of mine at school, initially bought me Sammy Hagar's VOA tape (the one with "I Can't Drive 55") at the local K-Mart as I had a birthday party, and you know, friends had to bring you gifts. For some reason, I felt a Krokus album was the better choice, returned to K-Mart, and exchanged Hagar for The Blitz. The power ballad "Our Love" was a keening favorite, and in one cool twist, it was actually the first time I was exposed to the glam band Sweet, albeit via these leather-wrapped Swiss screamers, with their cover of "Ballroom Blitz." (Many got that privilege much later with Tia Carrere's band in "Wayne's World," so I feel I was ahead of the curve here, at least.)

Ratt - Out of the Cellar
We sometimes ask our grandparents to buy us things we can't attain otherwise. Asking grandma to pay for this 1984 debut by hard-rocking L.A. crew Ratt (with a crawling, prone Tawny Kitaen on the cover) was a wildy inappropriate ask. Still, to my late grandmother Lillian, that was so kind of you, thanks for catering to my whims at Buffalo's Eastern Hills Mall all those years ago. "Round and Round," "Lack of Communication," "I'm Insane"... bangers, all. Ratt gets zero respect, but they were among the better of the "hair metal" bands (even Jane's Addiction's Dave Navarro is a huge fan). Allow me to share a true story: I remember my school librarian, vetting music to be included in the borrowing collection, and she was contemplating Out of the Cellar. She was wise and evenhanded enough to discuss the lyrical content of the album with me, and even rationalize the socioeconomic realities of why a song like "She Wants Money" had to be written. Hilariously, the record made it into the school collection (as did Iron Maiden's Powerslave later on, surely due to the latter's depiction of Egyptian history).

ZZ Top - Eliminator
The influence of MTV led me to check a box on the Columbia House order form for Eliminator, in effect a mere audio component to some really wild videos with fast cars, comically hirsute men, and braless women (as my Mormon friend Jimmy made sure to point out to me, watching MTV at his house). We are all the protagonist of a ZZ Top video at some point in our lives, from the beset-yet-sharp-dressed valet with the asshole boss, to the put-upon shoe shop girl who's just looking for love... all we need is some confidence, pumped into our self-esteem tank by Billy Gibbons like so much gasoline. But lest you think it's all sex, a red Ford coupe, and a trio of morally-bankrupt women who have legs and can really make it happen for you, ZZ Top tackled the acute challenges of modern life and the compromised way we nourish ourselves, in the form of "TV Dinners." The bonkers MTV video for that song had a claymation creature that crawled out of the foil-covered meal, robotic choreography on the part of Gibbons and Dusty Hill, and computer age visuals that fit the song nicely. It just made me enjoy that track on Eliminator even more. And really, the lyric "I throw'em in and wave'em and I'm a brand new man, oh yeah" speaks quite accurately to the ZZ Top thesis statement: One missing component in your life, when added, can change it dramatically for the better. If there's a lesson in their videos, it's certainly that. They were the sage, bearded life coaches every American kid needed.

Judas Priest - Defenders of the Faith
Priest's album covers alone were enough to get adolescent denizens of heavy metal parking lots (namely me, eventually) to hand over every last cent of their allowances in order to buy a copy. This is one of the band's stronger efforts, unfortunate as it was that it followed their commercial peak, Screaming for Vengeance. Still, it was worthy. With the bulldozer/tiger monster on the cover, and powerful classics like "The Sentinel," and "Love Bites," Defenders was the definition of awesome to me, and a significant brick in the gleaming, heavy metal wall I constructed around myself at the outset of my teenage years. Of course, the songs "Eat Me Alive" and "Jawbreaker" were lost on me at the time, and things have become clearer since, now that I have full context and understanding of Rob Halford's sexuality. (If nothing else, it certainly speaks as to how much Priest were getting away with, in terms of artistic expression.) At my age, I was just happy to get away with sneaking into a downstairs room on a Saturday night, quietly, to view MTV's Weekend Concert featuring Judas Priest. I was forbidden from watching it, so of course it only made me double down on my Priest fandom, which was fueled greatly by this record.

Pat Benatar -
Live from Earth
As with other selections on this list going forward, this tape arrived to me via a mail-order Columbia House club deal where you got several tapes for a penny, and had to buy just one within a year to complete the deal. However, you had to mail back reply cards so you wouldn't automatically be sent their monthly selections. It was about as much clerical work as I was charged with as a 13 year old, and I was more than OK with the arrangement. I must have ordered this one because it included "Love is a Battlefield," a video I saw on MTV and a bonus track added on to this otherwise live document. I think I also remembered Benatar kicking ass/taking names in the "You Better Run" clip that was in heavy rotation in the early days of MTV. Otherwise, this 1983 release is a terrific listen, and "Hell is for Children," offered here in a live rendition, certainly scandalized PMRC-adjacent religious leaders and parents, so it had that going for it. 

Phil Collins - Hello, I Must Be Going
Upon contemplating the trajectory of Phil Collins' career, from the concussive drums on "In the Air Tonight" to the "adult-contempo" escapade of "Something Happened on the Way to Heaven," I will quote the playacting Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop, about to take down the shotgun robber at a strip club..."Phil, man, you CHANGED!" I echo the dismay in Axel Foley's voice, but in a very real way. Upon review, Collins' career has been a wide-ranging one, from Genesis to "Sussudio" to songs for an animated Disney movie about Tarzan. Look, the man's a legend and his accomplishments are staggering (including session drumming for Robert Plant and others), but dark, edgy Phil remains my favorite Phil. My discovery of that shade of Collins started with Hello, I Must Be Going, another Columbia House selection. Come to find out, the lead track "I Don't Care Anymore" was one of the few tracks on this album that possessed the darkness I craved. The preceding album, Face Value, with "In the Air Tonight," and the brassy "I Missed Again," inevitably got added to my collection. Both records, for all their occasional drama, also featured horns and a love of Motown. So maybe that Phil change I was upset about wasn't a change, but just a guy chasing his muse all along. Collins later drifted to the middle of the road, but even back in the cassette era, Hello, I Must Be Going was acceptable to play within earshot of my parents.

Various Artists - Beat Street (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Back in the early to mid-80s, breakdancing was a thing. Like a one-person flash mob long before flash mobs came about, there was a guy at my high school that would start breaking, while several students would encircle him, either in a state of fascination, befuddlement or both. And so the Breakin' movies were very much on my radar, as was Beat Street, a 1984 dance film produced by Harry Belafonte, as was this soundtrack, bought for me by my stepdad's sister Regina, who lived in New York City. I'm loathe to admit this, but I'm not sure I ever got too far past the first track, "Beat Street," by Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious 5 , but it was a hot jam that was worn out, and rewound many times on a tape deck as my friends and I put down cardboard and attempted to emulate this national dance craze. (I just thank God smartphones, with their instant video-capturing capabilities, weren't around back then.) Certainly, the lyrics of "Beat Street" were aimed at a demographic outside of my own: "And huh-huh Beat Street is a lesson, too / Because ah, you can't let the streets beat you." This was a dispatch from a troubled locale I had never even seen nor visited. But the song's beats were undeniable, and my friends and I still moonwalked, noodled our arms and did backspins to them, anyway. Pop culture works in strange ways.

Scorpions - Love at First Sting
MTV was an amazing resource for sheltered kids in America who might otherwise have never seen many eye-opening things. A prime example is the Scorpions' "Rock You Like a Hurricane" video, where this hard-rocking squad from Hanover, Germany is surrounded by faltering prison bars while groups of painted, feral women try to get at them, arms outstretched. That video was how I first heard that song, and it was among the factors that drove me to procure Love at First Sting, the most successful LP the Scorpions had in America. Clearly, at age 13, I had nothing in common with these guys, but much like how we marvel at James Bond and superheroes, they held a certain "do you really live like this?" intrigue. For these love'em-and-leave'em Deutschland gentleman, sexuality was front and center, and many of their album covers had straight-up dirty/suggestive images. Love at First Sting is no exception: Sex is directly in the buyer's face, starting with the Helmut Newton-shot cover of a man tattooing a woman's thigh. The "write what you know, guys" lechery carries over with lyrics like "My cat is purring, it scratches my skin" (which, let's all agree, was not about being a veterinary tech). Questionable role models at best for a kid not even out of middle school, but these guys sometimes used three guitars and rocked hard, so I dug them. At least the debauchery was offset (kinda?) by more tender feelings, as heard on "Still Loving You," a power ballad and mega-hit that allegedly triggered a baby boom in France in 1985. (If you're inspiring the French to get even more amorous, chapeaux off to you, good sirs!)

Twisted Sister - Stay Hungry
At the nexus of wanting to rock and piss your parents off lies the mighty glam-metal act Twisted Sister, a fact not at all lost on me as I watched their antics on MTV. In heavy rotation on the channel were the videos for "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "I Wanna Rock," where authority is figuratively and literally thrown out of a window. It spurred me to buy Stay Hungry, with its grotesque album cover of the band's majordomo Dee Snider in black leather with pink fringe, about to gnaw on some poor creature's leg bone (perhaps it belonged to one of the PMRC members?). A vulgar display to be certain, but that's what made it so cool. The music on this record, curated precisely for young Americans, has proven it has its own legs, as "I Wanna Rock" still thunders through sports stadiums, and "We're Not Gonna Take It" has, well, been used for less dignified purposes recently (anti-lockdown protests, for one). Back in 1984, I gravitated to tracks like "The Price" and "Burn in Hell," and I still think they're prime cuts, teeming with a melodrama and campiness that I appreciate in new ways these days. Twisted Sister isn't in regular rotation for me at this point, but when I do revisit the defiant, motivational Stay Hungry, it takes me back and helps me understand, in small ways at least, of who I was then, and how I arrived at being the person I am now. 

November 1, 2020

Long Train Runnin': The Endless Wait for the 2020 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductions

As Talking Heads once sang, "I'm still waiting."

It feels apropos to compare the delayed Rock Hall induction special (airing on HBO this Saturday, 11/7) to other, long-anticipated rock and roll events. This prerecorded ceremony is the Hall's Chinese Democracy, Boston's 8-years in the making post-Don't Look Back album Third Stage, its Police reunion. The rescheduled, 35th annual dispensation of "Rock's Highest Honor" is finally here, but it rolls into the station to be greeted by a changed, troubled country that understandably has heftier things on its mind than an awards show and an Irving Azoff speech.

Indeed, a veritable eternity has passed since the last "normal" induction ceremony. Let's do the time warp back to March 29, 2019, when the 34th annual gala happened at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. If you can name all the 2019 inductees off the top of your head, you're either a close follower of the Hall, or you have Wikipedia in front of you (for the record, the class was Radiohead, Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks, Def Leppard, the CureRoxy Music, and the Zombies). March of 2020 feels like it was 5 years ago, so March 2019 might as well be the Stone Age. For further perspective, mull this over: Ric Ocasek died in September of 2019, and there has not a ceremony since where they could have paid tribute to him. And in the intervening time between ceremonies, the music world has also lost such nominated or inducted luminaries as Dr. John, Dave Bartholemew, Robert Hunter, Ginger Baker, Neil Peart, Bill Withers, John Prine, Florian Schneider, Little Richard, Peter Green, and Eddie Van Halen. Folks at the Hall have expressed previously that they don't want the ceremony to turn into a wake, so it will be interesting to see how much time is afforded the dearly departed this Saturday. (A multi-guitarist tribute to EVH has already been announced.)

Death is on everyone's mind these days, though. It's inescapable and perspective-giving, and it marginalizes this Rock Hall business no matter what. In the midst of an unprecedented, psyche-pummeling pandemic, and four days after the most consequential election of our lifetimes comes... the class of the 2020 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The artists are finally inducted, and we can get on worrying/bitching about the 2021 slate [David Rose sigh of exasperation HERE].

Indeed, at this rather haunted juncture of human history, the timing of the ceremony (the 11/7 date originally tied to a postponed live event) kind of evokes Hollywood's cynical dumping of bad movies in January, where no one will really notice them. On the other hand, it might still be a somewhat brilliant play by the Hall, as it's possible a fresh sense of optimism and the anticipation of a new era may be afoot in America at the time HBO broadcasts this thing. In essence, the "big party" Greg Harris mentioned in a SiriusXM interview way back in March, when we all thought this event still stood a chance of happening live at Public Auditorium in Cleveland. Oh, youthful optimism!

In any case, this ready-made, reportedly performance-free HBO special honoring Depeche Mode, the Doobie Brothers, Whitney Houston, Nine Inch Nails, Notorious B.I.G., and T. Rex is a bit bizarre. Spontaneity has been jettisoned in favor of wrapping up unfinished business, and the invested can argue whether or not it was the right way to go, but to be fair, the Hall was left with few options. Still, this HBO-only decision doesn't sit well with everyone – no less than Stevie Nicks said recently that the Hall should have waited a year to honor this 2020 class live, in person ("It's not like going to the ball," she told Consequence of Sound). But take a breath, and imagine that scenario  let's assume everything is even remotely back to normal by Fall of 2021 there would be two nights of inductions, maybe on consecutive nights or perhaps a week apart like Coachella weekends. Fine, but it would extend the limbo of this 2020 class for... Another. Effing. Year. (Good god, Michael McDonald, an unparalleled silver fox, might be looking like Gandalf the White by then.)

So maybe this HBO special was the right thing. Maybe it was the only thing. After all, this Rock Hall train, stuck on the tracks for too long, is compelled to keep on moving. To quote the Doobie Brothers' "Long Train Runnin'," "Well the pistons keep on turning/and the wheels go round and round." A sincere congratulations and deep respect to the incredible artists being enshrined this Saturday. It's a richly deserved honor for the inductees across the board. Still, it's clear we're all ready to move on... in so many ways.

October 10, 2020

Quiet Storm: Why Sade Belongs in the Rock Hall

On Episode 44 of Hall Watchers, Eric and Mary made a case for Sade to be in the Rock Hall. Here is an edited and updated version of the argument.

Take shelter from the Quiet Storm
, because the next artist to be championed for Rock Hall induction is Sade, eligible since 2009, but never nominated.

Sade is the band; Helen Folasade Adu is the lead singer. Sade is a perfect candidate for the Hall – if one considers recent Rock Hall history, such icons as Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston have earned induction, and Chaka Khan has received several nominations, so Sade should also have a seat at the Rock hall table. Rock and roll can be a loud, uncivilized and brash listening experience, to be sure (and thank god), but hey, Cleveland, try a little tenderness.

Over the course of her career, Sade Adu has become this timeless icon, setting the template for pop stars and rappers alike. It's a good bit of fun to view her as the female James Bond – an aspirational figure that will always be so much cooler than we’ll ever be. (Agent Adu, you are hereby licensed to "chill").

How exactly did this happen how did this diamond form? One wonders how Sade Adu came to be. This Nigerian-British sophisticate's identity was formed from her past lives as a model, fashion designer, backup singer, and stylist to acts like dapper New Romantic crew Spandau Ballet. She paid her dues doing gigs on the London club scene at venues like Heaven alongside creative partner Stuart Matthewman. It all materialized, with international gigs and the Sade debut Diamond Life dropping in 1984. The rest is history.

Adu's philosophical approach, life experiences and long-gestating "thing," if you will being "Sade" has been a graceful, slow-burn process. These things don't happen overnight, and the best things never do. It's precisely why she and her namesake group stand alone – Sade is effectively its own musical genre. Indeed, there’s a singular strength to Sade and her musical expression. She demonstrates that you can be heartbroken but still maintain your game face through it all. She’s been hurt, but she’s a survivor.

Another reason Sade is exactly the type of artist the Hall should recognize: She’s always played by her own rules (a totally rock and roll attitude), creating and releasing her compelling music on her terms. In fact, she’s turned away from fame, letting it all come to her. She shuns the promotional process, doing very few interviews, demonstrating a wise self-preservation. It's basically non-existent in the social media era, but there's something to be said for mystery in popular music. Adu has maintained that mystery in a digital age where we know way too much about every public figure. There’s an absolute dignity and grace there that sets her part.

Sade’s suave and sophisticated music is a beautiful thing worthy of praise and contemplation. Bonafide musical excellence can be heard across the Sade discography, from 1984's Diamond Life to 2010's Soldier of Love. Both ice and fire are found in this musical realm — a silky, assured blend of R&B, soul and jazz that has aged like fine wine, and well-exemplified on “Smooth Operator,” “Is It a Crime,” and “No Ordinary Love." A relaxed, romantic sentiment is woven into this music's braids, of course, but there's so much more. Listen again to the percolating escapade of “Paradise” and the striking “Soldier of Love,” which marked an evolution in her sound that nodded at industrial sonic textures, and featured these lyrics: "I'm at the borderline of my faith/I'm at the hinterland of my devotion/In the front line of this battle of mine/But I'm still alive." A torch song, if there ever was one, and verses that encapsulate the entire Sade mission statement. 

Sade wields an outsized influence on modern R&B, and she’s influenced everyone from Janet Jackson to D'Angelo to BeyoncĂ©. In fact, Drake loves Sade so much, he literally got a tattoo of her face. (It's now abundantly clear who should induct her...)

There is also remarkable influence into the 21st century. Sade’s breathy, whispery vocal style prefigured, and was ASMR before ASMR was a common term. Thus, a direct connection must be made from Sade to ASMR icon Billie Eilish – if you listen to such Eilish tracks as “When the Party’s Over” and “Everything I Wanted” you can hear that influence, clear as day.

In closing, Sade has been a shining example to so many after her. She is a North Star to a legion of other artists. That she influenced Gen-Z hero Billie Eilish (whether or not Billie realizes it) is no-brainer criteria for Rock Hall consideration. It’s time for the Nomination Committee to put Sade on the ballot. The qualifications of influence and musical excellence are very much in evidence here, combined with a host of intangible qualities that transcend verbal articulation.

Put Sade in the Rock Hall.